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Boost your research skills for your Natural and Built Environment dissertation

What will I learn in this section?

  • The importance of using high quality academic information for assignments.
  • How to evaluate information.

1. Why it is important to choose high quality information for your dissertation?

                             Activity 1: Take the quiz

You can find feedback on the quiz in Box 4. Answers in the Support section.

                             Activity 2: Take a look at the Critical Writing guide and read the Introduction to Critical Thinking.

We are suggesting that you read the introduction because it is helping you understand why we need to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking is not being negative, it is about thinking about what you are reading and the guide reflects on 5 steps that show critical thinking in action.

So much is written about most topics that it can be difficult to know which sources will be the best to use in your work. 

As you learn more about your subject this will get easier, but there are some simple steps to help you choose what to read. This is what we are going to explore next!

2. How do I evaluate the information I find?

It is not enough to find information... you need to make sure you find the most appropriate, relevant and reliable information! 

You need to evaluate the information and sources you use and make sure out of the millions pieces of information you could have used... you used the best possible pieces! 

Here is a list of commonly used criteria for evaluating information: 

If you prefer you can download a checklist version of the criteria to help you decide whether to use a piece of information in your work.

Relevance

  • Even if the source turned up in your search results, is it genuinely about what you want to know?
  • Is it only tangentially connected to your topic, or on another subject all together?
  • Are they using the same definitions as you? When they use a term, do they mean the same thing as you do when you use that term?

Author and authority

  • What does the author know about the subject? Why is it worth listening to what they have to say about it?
  • What is their background? 
  • What else have they written?

Audience

  • As you are training to become a professional, you normally want material aimed at professionals or researchers. These sources will have the best level of detail and nuance.
  • You might want to use simpler material aimed at a general audience as a starting point if you are unfamiliar with a topic. But this would be would be with the aim of building up your understanding and knowledge to the point you can tackle the professional-level material.

Bias

Ideally, you want balanced sources which consider all the available evidence and strive to minimise bias. So:

  • Does the author or source have any biases? 
  • What assumptions is the source based on?
  • Is the source trying to sell you something, or push a certain political or ideological stance?
  • Are there any conflicts of interests? These are outside influences- often to do with the funding of the research or the employment of the authors- which might consciously or unconsciously bias the author. If there is a potential conflict of interest, the authors should declare that this is the case (and it's suspicious if they don't!).
  • Do the authors provide evidence for all their claims?
  • Are they misrepresenting the evidence, or omitting evidence which you know exists elsewhere?
  • Are there any geographical bias in searches or source selection? Have they considered the international perspective?

Currency

  • How much has changed since the source was published?
  • Have any later developments contradicted or overturned what the source argues?‚Äč
  • Older sources can be useful in specific circumstances: for example, an older source might have established a key theory or method, or might help you to understand how or why things were done a certain way in the past. However, as a general principle, more recent sources are preferable.

3. Choosing what you need!

This is a picture of a light bulb.                      Activity 3: Rank the information sources

This activity is to help you think about which sources may be more robust sources of evidence on which to base your dissertation research and ideas upon.

You can find reflections on this activity in Box 6. Choosing sources to inform and cite in your assignments at the end of this page for you to take a look at after you have ranked the sources.

4. Choosing sources to inform and cite in your assignments

In Box 3. Choosing what you need, we asked you to consider what sources are your lecturers expecting to see in your reference list?

Here are our reflections on that question! Your lecturers expect to see appropriate sources related to your assignment and topic. 

So a dissertation is a very research-focused assignment: therefore, other research-focused sources like academic journal articles are absolutely ideal sources to use for a dissertation. 

However, journal articles only include certain kinds of information, and it might be necessary to use other sources to address certain topics. So examples of other sources that might be relevant could be:

  • Instruction manuals, handbooks and other how-to information, 
  • Laws and regulations
  • Standards and other technical specifications
  • Statistics and demographics
  • Maps and plans

There will always be exceptions to any rule and it is difficult to predict all the different types of assignment you may undertake during your course, and hence exactly which resources are suitable.

Evaluation is key for all sources and if you are unclear if something is appropriate to use or good enough for you to cite and base your assignment on... just ask! 

Take a break

Congratulations you have completed five sections! 

Time to take a break - maybe find something fun to read! Hallam Library has an extensive comics and graphic novel collection!